You’re at home, sitting in your living room, sipping on a cup of hot tea (maybe with a nip of brandy), melting away from the din of the day. You’ve been staring out the window, watching a summer thunderstorm wreak its heavy and dark magic on your lawn, wind tap-tap-tapping trees against your shutters, rain threatening to flood the sidewalk. The room around you has grown dim as night fell behind the rainclouds, and now the dull blue light from your smartphone is the only thing holding back the darkness.
As the thunder rolls in the distance your mind drifts around ideas of project management, product ownership, stakeholder commitment… until CRESHHHAAAAKKKKHHH! a bolt of lightning hits the ground just beyond your window! Your startled body jerks uncontrollably, sending the teacup out of your lap and crashing to the floor! As you bend over to pick up the shards of shattered saucer, you see two familiar faces in the doorway— Caris and Todd, your digital strategy consultants at Four Kitchens.
“You have to come with us, right now,” says Caris, “we’ll explain later!”
Todd urges you along, “Hurry! We must go quickly! You can grab two things to take with you.”
You scan the living room for what you might grab: Smartphone? Flashlight? Rope? Water bottle? Pocket knife? Laptop? Kindle? Jacket?
You trust Todd and Caris implicitly; there is no question that you’ll follow them into that dark and stormy night, but which two items will you take?
This is how we start a discovery workshop with a new client. Typically, people will pick one practical thing (like rope or the pocket knife) and one technological thing (like the smartphone or laptop). But, surprise!, we’re going to live off-grid on a deserted island for a month, and without power your laptop and phone are going to be useless bricks by the end of the day.
And that’s the point of a discovery workshop: unless we all know where we’re going, we can’t make smart decisions about what we’ll need on the journey.
The discovery phase is absolutely crucial for any project. Discovery allows us to reach a common understanding between us and our clients. Often, a client starts from their RFP by thinking about all the things they’d like to see on their new site. The discovery phase allows us to strip away misunderstandings about what is needed for a project and help clients uncover problems that, together, we can fix. It’s about discovering what the client needs instead of just hearing what they want.
The discovery workshop is the essential beginning of that process. During a two- or three-day workshop, we establish trust, develop empathy, talk about project goals, and begin to see what a relationship between us would be like.
At Four Kitchens, we like the idea of storytelling and narrative: explicitly linking each step in the process, so that every action we take now works to build-up everything we will do next. Over the years we’ve developed a unique structure for our discovery workshops, situating them around the three-act structure of a modern story.
The workshop as narrative
In Act I, we meet our players. Starting with the icebreaker—the dark and stormy night—loosens everybody up and lets us meet each other as people. Then we can talk about our goals: the goals you have as an organization, the goals you have for the project, the goals you have for yourself with respect to the project (two very different things), and the goals we have in working with you.
In Act II, we have confrontation. Here, we’ve developed another unique strategy we call the “pre-mortem.” In pre-mortem, we talk about our fears and consider what failure looks like for this project. What are all the things we can do to make absolutely certain we fail? By listing all the ways we can contribute to failure, we highlight potential pitfalls we can avoid, and clients can think about ways they may already be sabotaging their work.
After dwelling on failure, establishing the criteria for success comes naturally. We help our clients find explicit and tangible ways for defining success so that project achievements don’t become lost to the bigger picture. These success criteria, along with the goals we establish in Act I, act as guide-stars for the life of the project.
And finally, in Act III, we find resolution. In terms of a discovery workshop, this is where we mentally and physically “shake it out,” and our approach here changes with each client. Resolution in the workshop should be centered around an activity that’s collaborative, physical, fun, and requires everyone to work together as a team. One project we like to end the day with is a variation on Draw Your Homepage: breaking off into smaller groups to collaboratively sketch out what the project Homepage should look like. By seeing how other people have interpreted the goals, failure points, and success criteria throughout the day, this project allows us to develop stronger empathy for one another, as we see how people have understood (or misunderstood) things differently than we have.
At the end of the day, we cap it all off with a retrospective. A time to go through the pain-points and epiphanies we’ve had throughout the workshop. We summarize what unfolded throughout the day, not just as an act of record, but for ourselves, to mentally catalog the story we’ve just told together.
….and this is just Day One.
UPDATED: Thank you, InVision for hosting us with the “All the Workshop’s a Stage” webinar! You can find a video of the full webinar on the InVision blog, or you can listen to a podcast summary with Todd and Caris on the InVision Blogcast on Soundcloud.